A Spell In the Wild, A Year and Six Centuries of Magic by Alice Tarbuck

I came across this book in a newsletter I read by the founders of Tramp Press, who published two nonfiction books I recently read and loved, Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost In The Throat and Sara Baume’s Handiwork.

Laura Waddell mentioned hibernation season approaching and the desire to curl up and zone out, which she’d been doing with A Spell in the Wild, describing it as “a witch’s year broken down month by month, full of foraging, feminism, magic, and making meaning” expounding further in this column she wrote for The Scotsman.

At the time I was reading two novels about a woman accused of being a witch, Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and I thought it would be interesting to follow those up with a contemporary view of witchcraft, so the timing of this book, from a Scottish/British perspective, with rich historical references was perfect. 

Review

Dr Alice Tarbuck is a woman at the intersection of many interests and influences, a poet, an academic, a keen forager with a practical and intellectual interest in witchcraft. Being such a loaded word, her book is a wonderful celebration of ritual and magic as well as a demystification of things witch-related, from someone who appreciates the natural world, pulling various practices together into her version of ‘witchcraft’, a blend of the practical, spiritual, academic, magical and intuitive.

Magic happens in all those moments when the world and you aren’t separated any longer by any sort of barrier; be it the brain or the body. It is a stepping into awareness of connection, a tuning into that feeling. Witchcraft is, among other things, a good container for trying to communicate these difficult-to-talk about experiences. We aren’t sure how else to articulate them, so we use metaphor, metaphysics, magic.

She records a year living in accordance with this way of being in the world, sharing it from both a practical perspective and through the vast canon of literature that has gone before.

A Spell For Every Season

Dr Alice Tarbuck, Author

The book is structured into twelve chapters, months of the year, mapping seasonal occurrences, discovering magic in the ordinary, sharing rituals, spells, making suggestions and backing up her pondering with a wealth of literature, indexed at the end. I read the book straight through, but it can be dipped into month by month.

Reigning in the academic somewhat, makes it an extremely accessible and compelling read, blending in personal experience, musing on and striking back at the snobbery, judgement and the often patronising attitudes of those who diminish the occult as some dark, fanciful indulgence, while applying critical academic rigour and vigour to her subject.

An urban dweller, she seeks to demonstrate and share the possibilities inherent in a city, the sacred spaces, the possibility of urban foraging, making use of what is around, rather than dwelling on what it is not.

Debunking the myths, she makes a case for creating one’s own practices, and takes us along as she enters what might be a more traditional sacred space, a forest near Moniack Mhor, and sits and waits. And gauges everything with a sense of humour and realism.

The ground is soft with the decaying remnants of falling trees, velveted with moss. It’s damp. Unmistakeably, so am I. There is nothing less transcendent than a damp arse. It’s time to go back I think.

A Spell in the Wild Alice Tarbuck December magic

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Reading this in December, the month entitled Midwinter and Magic in the Dark holds particular resonance. Solstice means ‘sun-stop,’ in Neolithic times, sacrifices were made to entreat the sun to return. We in turn become sorcerers of light, following traditions that illuminate, with candles, hanging lights to create a warm ambiance indoors.

It isn’t surprising that humans quickly turn to introspection as the light fails. We light candles against the darkness, and talk long into the night, turning thoughts inward, using the little light left to illuminate our darkest places. Winter can be seen as a time of healing, regrouping, of doing work on ourselves rather than work in the world.

Witches Confessions and Popular Medieval Literature

Tarbuck gives a fascinating short talk, an extension of her April chapter Witches Becoming Animals referring to the trials and subsequent writings that exist around a cotter’s wife Isobel Gowdie’s confession in 1662. She has a wonderful storytelling voice and gives an informative, riveting account, questioning many of the assumptions various writer’s have made about her.

History and reference to the North Berwick witch trials, King James Daeomonologie text, Isobel Gowdie’s confession and Latin treaties on witchcraft make for mesmerising reading.

Referring to a popular Latin text that likely influenced King James text, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) produced in 1487 in Germany, was so popular that by 1669, thirty editions had been published.

It contained among other things why women were particularly prone to satanic seduction, the answer – their weak character and voracious sexual appetite – a misogynistic, church-sanctioned sentiment which echoed throughout medieval witch panics.

Listening to her speak so knowledgeably on her subject in the two talks below, especially the historical context, makes me realise how much Tarbuck has held back, each chapter could easily have been a book. Her ability to narrow it down into something digestible to the everyday reader is exceptional.

Totally down to earth, yet open to the magic of being the silent observer, Alice Tarbuck introduces an enchanting perspective on connecting with nature, creating one’s own simple remedies from urban foraging, keeping and displaying little things one collects on nature walks, inventing spell-poems, (which could as easily be affirmations or prayers) and a little bit of ritual and divination to see one through various difficulties.

Witchcraft is, I believe, the practice of entering into relation with the world, of exerting your will in it and among it, and learning how to work with it in ways that are fruitful for yourself and the world.

The casual, engaging style is a pleasure to read and I couldn’t help but think what a privilege of the 21st century it is, to nonchalantly be able to refer to one’s passion and pastime as witchcraft, without threat of dire consequence. As Tarbuck reminds us, now that witchcraft and research into it is legal, those with an interest are able to reclaim the nuances that were lost during that terrible period of history that condemned women for their ways, opening ourselves up to the more than human environment that surrounds us.

“magic is the superpowerfulness of everything, just as it is” Sabrina Scott

Further Reading/Listening

Human Animal Transformation in Early Witchcraft – a video/talk by Dr Alice Tarbuck, Nov 2020
 
What the Witch Trials & Herecy was All About – Alice Tarbuck talks to Hannah Trevarthen at the Wigtown Book Festival
 
Witchcraft Workshops – for those with an interest in the history, ethics and practice of witchcraft, whether from a personal or a research-based point of view.
 

Purchase a Copy via UK Independent Bookshop

Handiwork by Sara Baume

My first read of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, I decided to read her work of creative nonfiction before trying her fiction (she has written two novels Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking).

I stumbled across this after reading the excellent A Ghost In The Throat published by the same independent Irish publisher Tramp Press, so I bought it hoping for a similar experience.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds review HandiworkHandiwork is a pure joy to read, it’s a small book, with often only a paragraph on a page, it has a beautifully thought out structure, referencing a number of different texts that the author, who is an artist, a craftswoman clearly holds dear and memories of her father and grandfather, as family members who worked with their hands.

Overall, it is an exploration of her process and influences, charting a daily practice, working with hands, expressing her creativity.

In The Craftsman, Sennett is a little grumpy about the prospect of confronting the question ‘What is art?’ Instead, he sets out his inquiry as: ‘We are trying to figure out what autonomy means – autonomy as a drive from within that impels us to work in an expressive way, by ourselves.’

After travelling Europe, she returns to her parents home and is greeted in her old room by a cacophony of objects she had assembled over many years, re-conceptualised out of available fragments, collected from her material environment.

a practice that Charles Jencks in the early 1970’s designated ‘adhocism’ – a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand.

Now she lives in a house with Mark, structuring her day between the mundane repetitive tasks of living, mornings dedicated to writing, and afternoons of making.

She considers herself a disciple of William Morris, artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist, who:

blue songbird Sara Baume Handiwork creative nonfiction

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agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.

This text is a place of reflection, aided by quotes from the various authors she refers to, relating to her own experience and insights and to the memory of her father and grandfather, one who worked with wood and the other with metal.

From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Her medium is plaster and her subject – she is making, carving, painting and mounting birds. While reading about bird migration. And trying to entice local songbirds she sculpts to a feeder in the garden.

It is like a songbird itself, a small book that sings its tribute to those who craft and create and follow the intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

We must begin, William Morris said in his lecture ‘Useful Work v. Useful Toil’ to the Hampstead Liberal Club in 1884, ‘ to build up the ornamental part of life’

Highly Recommended.

‘This little book is a love-child of my art and writing practices, or a by-product of novels past and coming. It’s about the connection between handicraft and bird migration, as well as simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house’. – Sara Baume

Further Reading

Article: New book is a love-child — of my art and writing says Cork author by Colette Sheridan

Read An Extract or Listen on RTE – Handiwork by Sara Baume 2 May, 2020

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1951)

The Sea as Home

Exactly five years ago I came across and read Rachel Carson’s debut novel Under the Sea-Wind (1941), not the book she is most well-known for, that is Silent Spring (1962) but her own personal favourite and definitely one of mine.

It was the first in her Sea Trilogy a beautifully told narrative account of three creatures that live within the ecosystem of the sea, a female sanderling named Silverbar, Scomber the mackerel and Anguilla the migrating eel.

The Sea as Mother

The Sea Around Us Rachel CarsonIn The Sea Around Us Carson makes the sea her subject, addressing it in three parts, Mother Sea, The Restless Sea and Man and the Sea About Him.

Reading nonfiction books on marine biology or ecology isn’t something I would normally choose to do on holiday but Rachel Carson writes narrative nonfiction that turns science and observation into a thrilling and insightful pageturner. And this second book in the trilogy, a New York Times bestseller, is just as engaging as her debut was. I loved it.

Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention. Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of  not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world. Through sharing Carson’s research, we become acutely sensitive to the interdependence of life. – Ann Zwinger , Introduction

The Sea as Teacher

Though published in 1951, therefore knowing our understanding of marine ecology has continued to develop, most of us likely won’t have read or studied too deeply about the sea, in fact, many remain (with good reason) in fear of it – not understanding her mood changes, dangerous rips, turbulent surf and the menacing creatures that live within her depths.

The Sea Rachel Carson Marine Ecology

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Here a casual reader with an interest in nature writing of a literary kind will learn and absorb much about the sea, the ocean, her characteristics, behaviours, secrets and influences with little effort, such is her mastery of narrating a serious subject in an engaging and memorable way.

Talking about the seasons, we discover the sea too experiences events that herald those forthcoming changes.

The lifelessness, the hopelessness, the despair of the winter sea are an illusion. Everywhere are the assurances that the cycle has come to the full, containing the means of its own renewal. There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness of the winter sea, in the chilling of the water, which must, before many weeks, become so heavy that it will plunge downward, precipitating the overturn that is the first act in the drama of spring.

From Sea to Land, and the Moon Question

Taking us back to the beginning we learn how the sea might have come about, reading of a once believed theory that the moon may have been a child of the earth, born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off and hurled into space, leaving a scar or depression on the surface of the globe, that now holds the Pacific Ocean.

Whether or not that is true, we do know the moon affects the tides and cycles of many animals. Where the Moon came from continues to be debated today.

We familiarise with the evolution of tides, the moon effect, the significant evaporation of the Mediterranean which makes it excessively salty and more dense and learn of the rush of a current from the Atlantic that replaces it, lighter water that pours past Gibraltar in surface streams of great strength.

jellyfish sea life Rachel Carson

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It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile – warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream  in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water.

Providing a succinct and easily readable account, we begin to understand the complexity of ocean currents, of streams within oceans, their discovery by sailors and captains, the reluctance of men to share their navigation maps, the effect on human migrations.

We read how interconnected everything is, the winds, waves, the currents, the deep abyss, the tendencies of schools of fish, explanations for their sudden disappearance and the effect on our livelihoods; the appearance of new land formations via underwater volcanoes, creating islands that emerge from the sea, we hear of airborne spiders riding high for miles, how life emerges on a protuberance from the sea and how easily it can be wiped out again.

It closes with the foretelling of the climate change we are already in, and the many that have been.

It is almost certainly true we are in the warming-up stage following the Pleistocene glaciation – that the world’s climate over the next thousands of years, will grow considerably warmer before beginning a downward swing into another Ice Age.

Rachel Carson had an incredible gift of writing the scientific complexity of the ecosystem of the sea and her creatures, sharing what was known at the time and hints of that which wasn’t in a captivating way, born of a great passion and love of the sea, the shore and all that lived within or depended on it.

Ideal Lake or Seaside Reading

Rachel Carson The Sea Marine Ecology

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist (1907-1964)

I read this on holiday sitting next to a lake, watching on a micro level those same factors that move a body of water, that give it life, occasionally seeing the little fish who’ve made a home in it, the plant life in the water and beside it. And we humans, making it our playground for the summer. In much appreciation and gratitude.

“The shore is an ancient world. I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” Rachel Carson

Further Reading

New Yorker: The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson

Brain Pickings: Why the Sea is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum 

Buy a Copy of The Sea Around Us

Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

Surfacing II by Kathleen Jamie

In the second half of Kathleen Jamie’s latest nature writing essay collection, Surfacing, she writes about an archaeological dig on the the island Orkney in Scotland, remembers a trip to a Tibetan town in China in her twenties, and tries to recall voices of her own female ancestors that are beginning to fade from her memory.

Links of Noltland I, II, III

The author spends time at another dig, one whose archaeology has been buried for five thousand years on the Scottish island of Orkney.

‘What’s happening is significant really to…well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.’

It is a Neothilic and Bronze Age settlement, a site that has been in operation for a number of years and could go on for many more, if they had surety of funding. They do not.

‘There’s enough here for thirty PhDs on bone alone,’ said Graeme, ‘Decades worth of work.’
‘If HES really pull out what will happen?’
‘We’ll have to look elsewhere and make all kinds of promises. We can’t look to the EU anymore.’

There is not just the work on site, but a Victorian building stacked with their findings, she visits and is shown beads bones and stones and ponders who those people might have been.

For a moment, out of the twenty-first-century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, there emerged a vision of people clothed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

The most famous find, discovered in 2009, is kept in the Heritage centre, where they have a small section, most of the centre given over to more recent Viking finds.

The ‘Westray wife’ is the earliest representation we have of a human, in the UK, and she has become a motif for the site, almost a tourist attraction, if tourists can be drawn to a sandstone figure not four centimetres high on a faraway island.

Jamie asks about local interest in their ancient dig and is surprised by the response.

‘They’re interested but not connected. It’s only the Viking they’re interested in. It’s the Vikings the Orkney and Shetland islanders identify with. They’re not British, not Scottish, they’re Norse. Not prehistoric. Viking.’
‘But the Vikings are so recent, relatively.’
‘The Vikings “won”,’ said Hazel with a shrug.
‘What do you mean the Vikings “won”?’ I asked reluctantly, thinking of the ancient burial mound I could see from my window, which the Vikings had chosen to use as a fishing station.
‘Just that. After the Vikings arrived, all traces of the older culture ceased. That’s what the archaeology is suggesting.’

Some years before the team found cows’ skulls set into the walls of one of the buildings they’d excavated, a complete ring of cattle skulls, all placed upside down with the horns facing into the room. The wall had been built up over them, no longer visible, but presumably their presence had been felt by whoever built it.

There are other sites over Europe where cattle skulls have been found and often a rush to come to conclusions, resulting in dramatic headlines of massacre or sacrifice, but this team have a different take on it, believing them to have had symbolic or aesthetic significance.

‘Remember’, said Graeme, ‘these animals would have had biographies. They would have been known as individuals. As personalities. Spoken about.’
‘Named?’
‘Maybe.’
‘You think they revered their cows?’
‘Worshipped!’ Hazel Laughed.

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She meets a couple who are organic cattle farmers, it seems like the only living link to the Neolithic people. They moved onto the farm one day and ploughed up the ryegrass the next, to plant a species-rich herbal lay, with thirty varieties of grass, which has seen a great increase in insects and wormcasts. They now have a herd of twenty-three milking cows. With names. And personalities. And a bull named Eric.

‘Lots of bulls here are called Eric. I think its a Viking thing.’

The couple make an artisan cheese in the style of alpine French cheeses called ‘Westray Wife’ a little picture of the Neolithic figurine features on their labels.

In the second part of the essay she returns for the end of the season, the closing of the site and in the third part she writes the story of the Neolithic people, the culmination of observation and imagination.

Surfacing

Although ‘Surfacing’is a metaphor which aptly describes the book’s theme and is appropriate for narratives about archaeological digs, it is also the title of a vignette about the author’s mother and grandmother.
Your losing their voices. When did that happen? You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice,and your grandmother’s. They died within eighteen months of each other a decade ago and today you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind.

A Tibetan Dog

A wonderful little essay that recounts an experience with a little terrier in a Tibetan town and his return in a dream many years later, a symbol she interprets on awaking, like a message from the subconscious she immediately understands.

The Wind Horse

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The final longer essay is one pulled from old notebooks and memories of her twenty-seven-year old self, travelling far from home, a woman who wanted to become a writer, starting out.

It is notably different to the earlier essays, more of a travelogue, less present, more self-conscious, there’s a passivity to travelling through a place without purpose, looking at it from the outside.

I could look and smile, but what did I learn of their lives, the prostrating Tibetan pilgrims, the stallholder deftly working an abacus, the ice-cream girl with her barrow, who sat with her chin in her hands when business was slack? Nothing at all.

A tall monk who wore brown robes and a topknot staying at their hotel.

He may have been a Taoist, he may have been Japanese, I don’t know, and I regret that I didn’t try to speak to him.

This reticence highlights what has become one of her strengths, prominent in the earlier pieces. What has also surfaced is Jamie’s generosity and respect for those she interacts with, she gives voice to others, her observations are an amalgam of her own observations and insights and those of the many other passionate participants or locals she encounters in her meanderings. She is not the lone observation, she is a gatherer of insight.

I so enjoy and value how the essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality. Her work is like a patchwork quilt, made up of different colours and textures, bringing in all the elements that make a community, whether its 5,000 or 500 years old or from the present day.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Surfacing I by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie writes creative nonfiction. Some people call it nature writing, some travel writing, others describe it as lyrical prose.

In her first book of essays Findings, she talks about her attempts to observe better, to stop naming things, to really see. She wants to move away from labelling and identifying, towards painting a picture with words.

Surfacing is her third collection and it’s brilliant, practiced in the art of observation she takes us with her on a voyage, helps us see with the eye of a naturalist, sharing her experience with respect for the environment, acknowledging the privilege.

A poet and bird watcher from Scotland, her essays are compelling and engaging, they draw you in as if you were there.

I’m writing about Surfacing in two parts, because the third essay, the longest, is 86 pages and deserves it’s own post, the majority are short vignettes of 3-6 pages. There are three essays of significant length and I’ll write about the reminder in Surfacing II.

The Reindeer Cave

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In the first essay, written in the second person ‘You‘, the author has hiked up a glen to the cave, thinking about the Ice Age and the preciousness of life, as she observes six red deer on the hillside opposite, equally startled no doubt.

Not half an hour ago you were walking beside the burn in a narrow ravine further up the glen. You heard something, glanced up to see a large rock bounce then plummet into the burn twenty five yards in front of you. The echo faded but your heart was still hammering as you backed away.

Deep within the hillside, in the passage of an underground stream, the bones of a bear were found by cave-divers. Carbon dated, they were found to be forty-five thousand years old.

A long sleep, even for a bear: sixteen million days and nights had passed in the upper world. Long enough for the ice to return, then yield again, then return in one last snap, then leave for good – or at least for now.

At the cave mouth she wonders whether the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’re too far gone with our Anthropocene.

Next to the last page is a black and white photograph of a valley, mist in the distance; as I look closely I see something  appear out of the mist. This is a book you must read the printed version, or you will miss the apparition.

A Reflection

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The second essay begins as Jamie is taking a train north (in Scotland), sitting on the landward side she watches wintry fields pass by, passengers on the opposite side have a sea view. Drifting in and out of daydreaming she notices the sea superimposed over fields of brown earth. Then disappear.

A moment later it flashed back again, a stretch of sea, silvery over the land, but only for a few seconds. By now I was sitting up, interested in this phenomenon. The fields on the left gave way to pinewoods, the train tilted a little and, yes, the sea’s reflection flashed on again, this time above the trees. If I narrowed my eyes I could see both sea and trees at once. And now there was a ship! A ghostly tanker was sailing over the pine trees.

She continues to Aberdeen and visits a museum. Interested in Arctic artefacts, it is at the Aberdeen University museum she first hears about archaeologist Rick Knecht and his work in Alaska, the subject of the next essay.

In Quinhagak

Jamie takes a six-seater plane from a small airport in Alaska, where pilots enter the waiting area, call out the name of their village then lead passengers across the tarmac. Nervous because the name is so unfamiliar, she hears the call for Quinhagak and follows two other passengers behind the pilot to the plane.

The pilot had long red hair tied in a loose bun with a biro stuck through it. In the plane she readied herself, then half turned in her seat.

‘You guys definitely going to Quinhagak? Just checking! Okay. There’s emergency supplies in the back.’

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The village is the home of the Yup’ik, indigenous people of the circumpolar north; an archaeological site Nunallaq (meaning old village) sits at the edge of the tundra, a couple of miles away near the beach. As the sea erodes the land, it is slowly revealing the 500 year old village and its cultural heritage, its resilience.

The dig is in it’s fifth season, at the end of every season all the finds are air freighted to Aberdeen to be cleaned, preserved and catalogued.

At the end of the excavation, however, there would be a great return. All the thousands of artefacts would go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally.

The dig is revitalising traditional skills that had been lost, local people interested in the items found are beginning to make replicas, relearning old techniques.

They are people who have learned to adapt. Their houses stand on stilts due to thawing of permafrost. Nothing can be buried. Any warm structure on the ground would cause the ground to melt and heave, collapsing the structure.

Between walks with her binoculars and helping out at the dig, sometimes facing seaward, other times landward, she observes life. At the end of each day people gather at the shed to view the days finds; on the last day of the season there will be a grand ‘show and tell’.

I noticed that people notice. George had noticed me looking.  They notice the bog cotton and its passing, an influx of owls, that there are bears around. The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively.

Near the end of her stay, she is invited to a birthday party with a couple of others. They arrive, there are introductions, they gave their names.

As we did so, Sarah looked at us from head to toe appraisingly, and then bestowed on each of us a Yup’ik name several syllables long. It seemed to delight her, matching us to these names by I don’t know what qualities.

I understood that these names, which we now bore as well as our own, were the names of family members who had died. So it was as revenants, rather than strangers that we were welcomed into Sarah’s home.

Later when they are introduced to one particular elder with their new Yup’ik names, the mention of those lost people affects the old lady deeply, she hugs them each warmly.

I so enjoy and value how Jamie’s essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Further Reading

My Review Of: her 1st collection Findings, her 2nd collection Sightlines

Article: Why Thawing Permafrost Matters

Sunday Morning Haiku

 

Spring Morning I

Sun rays pass through boughs

Petals wave back with longing

The lantern waiting.

Spring Morning II

Small branches in leaf

Bow to and fro in union

A family of trees.

Haiku of Life

A haiku is a form of poetry that generally consists of three lines, where the first and last contain five syllables and the middle line is made up of seven.

The subject is usually the natural world, a topic that tends to awaken people to their sense of oneness with nature and the divine.

Every morning at the moment I am reading a chapter of Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villoldo and this morning I read Chapter Six, Courage As Action, which ends with this exercise to create your own haiku.

He suggests to:

Observe the trees, the grass, the birds and the insects, then write a few poems.  Let go of any judgments such as I can’t do this or I have no talent for writing. Just do it.

At the beginning of each chapter, he shares a thought-provoking quote, I shall end with that. I hope you feel inspired to write a Haiku for yourself too.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes

courage is the quiet voice at the end of

the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

– MARY ANNE RADMACHER

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads

Nature Inspiration

Welcome back to my Reading Lists for Total Confinement. Today I’m sharing my Top Five Nature Inspired reads.

It’s not winter, however we are in period of hibernation and just as bees pollinate flowers, somehow we humans are spreading a virus around the world.

Without pollination, plants cannot create seeds. For now, it’s difficult to see what good will bloom from Covid-19 but lets hope something positive will come from what we learn in solitude and while locked in lets hope the bees can get on and do their job out there.

When it’s too cold to be out in nature or when I feel like a break from the books I’ve been reading, I love to read compelling nature essays or stories inspired by nature. A form of quiet escapism, they are a unique appreciation of nature.

The choices below are a mix of essays, fiction, memoir and poetry. If you like the sound of a book, click on the title to read my review.

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads

1. The Bees by Lalline Paul

I’m starting with a novel, because this was an incredible feat of the imagination as well as being a compelling read. It’s the story of The Hive narrated by Flora 717, a worker bee. Flora is a lowly sanitation bee and we meet her as she is becoming aware of her surroundings and the hierarchy within which she lives.

Not only was the author inspired by bees, but she models the fictional landscape of The Hive on a Bronze Age Minoan Palace. Stunning, I was completely bowled over by this story. A thrilling read!

2. Under The Sea Wind by Rachel Carson
Many know Rachel Carson for her groundbreaking work Silent Spring that launched the environmental movement and brought about revolutionary changes in laws governing air, land and water use.

But Carson’s own personal favourite and a book I absolutely loved was her debut Under the Sea-Wind. I’d read a few excellent creative non-fiction nature titles and was wondering whether anyone had written in a similar lyrical way about the sea. And here it is, the masterpiece, what a unique and incredible insight she gives of it.

Divided into three parts,  it’s written from the perspective of three creatures she knew well (she was a zoologist), Part One is the life of the seashore, seen through the eyes of a sanderling she names Silverbar; in Part Two we experience the ocean with Scomber the mackerel, and Part Three takes us into the deep dark, fathoms, following Anguilla the eel out of a river into the Sargasso Sea. Absolutely inspired, informative, stunning.

3. The Turquoise Ledge Leslie Marmon Silko

I had to include this here even though I’m doing a separate list about Memoirs, because it was such a fascinating read and introduction to the Arizona desert and its wildlife. The way Silko talks about the rattlesnakes that inhabit her property will almost convince you that under similar circumstances we too might live harmoniously with these creatures!

Alongside the critters, she recalls ancestral Laguna stories of her childhood, talks of Star Beings, collects turquoise rocks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) and shares her fascination with the Nahua people, their language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain to whom she occasionally chants her own rain prayer.

I discovered it the same way I found Under the Sea-Wind, this time I was looking for a creative non-fiction title set in the desert near Tuscon; I found this stunning memoir and snapped it up straight away.

Silko too is an author many know for her bestselling novel Ceremony, I enjoyed Gardens in the Dunes and the slim collections of letters with poet James Wright The Delicacy & Strength of Lace. Yes, I was hooked and read whatever I could get my hands on after reading her inspired memoir. Fortunately I still have Storyteller and Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit on my shelf.

4. When Women Were Birds, Fifty Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams wrote Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place in 1991 about a personal loss and the dangers confronting Great Salt Lake. Twenty years later, now 54 years old, she was the age her mother attained when she departed this world and thus reflects anew on life, as a woman, a conservationist and activist in another arresting memoir.

Referring to ancient crow etchings of women in China that were read by women she thinks of her own bird marking, a scar above the eye made by a falcon on a river trip. She speaks of the Mormon tradition of keeping journals, of a gift her mother left her, the collection of carefully preserved, beautiful cloth bound journals and the shock of what she finds within their pages. This is one you’ll want to slow read, to ponder, cherish, and even re-read.

5. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

And to finish a short collection of poetry from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver who passed away in January 2019. Her poetry oscillates between the natural world and worldly experiences and in this collection she goes down to the shore, dances for joy, falls downs the stairs of the Golden Temple on a trip to India and in my favourite of the collection lets us know, as if she too has been told to self-isolate, that she has accepted her fate.

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.

Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.

Are you following me?

Do you have a favourite nature-inspired read to share?

Further Reading Lists Featured

My Top 5 TBR

My Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I absolutely loved this, a surprise read, it was a gift from a friend who spends more time living in the wilderness than with humanity. When I read the bio of the author and saw she was a nature writer and wildlife scientist, with a degree in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour, I was even more attracted to the potential this might infuse, what looked like a murder mystery novel.

Delia’s research on the importance of female grouping in social mammals influenced her fictional writing. Where the Crawdads Sing explores the behavioral impact on a young woman who is forced to live much of her young life without a group.

It’s a slow burning, pleasurable observation of Kya, a girl as a fledgling, one pushed from the nest of family and abandoned before fully formed. And so she develops in a way not like others, highly observant, ultra sensitive to her surroundings, the marsh. They call her the marsh girl.

The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because no one else wanted it.

Like any weak female species, she knows she is prey to the predator, and so acts in ways that might seem strange to other humans, who live within the security of a home and a community (although this is the 1960’s in North Carolina, so not all humans are treated equally).

When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.

The story is told via twin narratives; the present day when a young man Chase Andrews is found dead at the base of a tower, and the question being asked is whether he fell or was pushed, and if pushed by who; and the past, the story of Kya, her abandonment, her survival, her friendship with Tate, with Chase, with Jumpin’ and Mabel, and how her feelings of rejection affect her relationships.

Her father stays long enough to teach her how to fish and navigate the channels with a boat, but when he leaves she has to learn to feed herself and make money to keep the boat in fuel.

The way the author makes the reader see Kya through the lens of biology and the behaviour of different species is stunning. When she described certain species behaviour, they were like clues to what was coming, I loved that she used nature as a guide.

Observing fireflies, she notices that each species has its own language of flashes to attract a mate. The males recognise the signals and fly only to the females of their species. But the female is capable of changing codes.

First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.

Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted – first a mate, then a meal – just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgement had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.

Loneliness leads her towards trouble and lessons. The marsh and its inhabitants always reward her. Humans disappoint her and she withdraws more than ever. Fortunately her one friend Tate, teaches her to read and her knowledge of the marsh becomes more academic and her appetite for learning about and within her natural environment are insatiable.

Sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies, was entitled “Sneaky Fuckers.”

:

Kya dropped the journal in her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature , just inventive ways to endure against the odds. Surely for humans there was more.

She tries to understand life through the biology she reads about and observes, but the community don’t tolerate difference and will create a narrative of their own in order to seek justice for one of theirs.

Ultimately Nature will decide.

A brilliant way of exploring human nature and our ecosystem, the culmination of a long career of observing wildlife and nature, now in that stage of life where she can share it perhaps more widely in the fictional form.

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia and grew up with a close relationship to nature. After her studies, she and her husband drove over the central Kalahari in Botswana and set up camp there for 7 years studying lions and hyenas, co-authoring the book Cry of the Kalahari. From there they moved to Zambia, where they studied elephants and established a program offering jobs, loans, and other assistance to local villagers so they would not have to poach wildlife for a living. They lived 22 years in Africa before returning to to the US.

She wants to continue writing fiction, especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behavior in a world less wild.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in NatureThe African Journal of Ecology, and many others. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko